Category Archives: Posts

The treatment of certain disorders by persuading the patient that all is well

Concise Medical Dictionary from Oxford University Press

The Return of an Ancient Management Secret

It has the power to bridge gaps, to boost confidence, and to give you the courage to risk greater achievement. In all likelihood your mother did it, your grade school teacher did it, and your school teammates did it. But your manager is probably terrified to try it. What is this highly-effective, ancient management secret? Touch. Authentic, comforting, powerful touch.

“This isn’t just a yoga thing,” writes Peter Bregman in a recent post on his semi-monthly HBR blog. Bregman’s insight began with the observation that simple touches from his yoga instructor to improve his pose transformed her class into the most refreshing and inspirational he’d ever experienced. It launched him on a journey to explore the power of touch and answer the burning question that ignites the moment you hear “touch” and “work” in the same sentence: What will HR say?!

Bregman reminds us of studies, such as Harry Harlow’s in the 1960s at the University of Wisconsin documenting the stunting impact of touch deprivation on infants, humans or otherwise. He notes a sympathetic touch from a doctor makes patients feel the visit lasted twice as long. He refers to a soon-to-be-published Psychological Science study from Columbia University reflecting a renewed willingness to risk more in pursuit of achievement when we’ve experienced a brief, light touch. We’re reminded of studies reflecting more wins on teams where players touch each other, and eventually of that particularly effective elementary school teacher who would simply walk around the room guiding distracted students back to task with a light touch and not a single word of reprimand.

But what of those HR warnings of lawsuits? Bregman councils us on the importance of authenticity and briefness. At DePauw Univeristy, Mathew Herstein led a study where random pairs of blindfolded students attempted to communicate an emotion to each other with a touch. Those folks that HR worries about – let this be your warning. The students accurately identified the emotion as often as we do when using verbal and facial communication (without a blindfold, of course). A brief, light touch given with authentic intention to support and comfort will usually be recognized in that way, as will the “creepy” touch that causes us to recoil and summon HR. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we feel it.

So what’s a supportive co-worker to do? Having been a beneficiary of the supportive touch – and a recipient of the creepy one – I concur with the majority of Bregman’s commenters. It’s high time we re-employed the power of that ancient management secret: the gentle, supportive touch.

What In The Heck Is The Zeigarnik Effect?

You’ve had a long day at work yet here you are, working late to cross a few things off your list. Why are you doing this? It’s probably the Zeigarnik Effect.

What’s the Zeigarnik Effect? It’s those intrusive thoughts reminding you of all the things you’ve started but haven’t quite finished. Whether rationally-speaking it’s something you want to finish it or not, it’s your mind’s sometimes incomprehensible but overwhelming desire to finish what you’ve started.

It’s also the underlying reason author and time management guru David Allen’s advises his GTD followers to write down everything that needs to be done. Unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt your thoughts, a sort of auto-pilot system reminding you of what needs to be completed. The more outstanding tasks you have, the more difficult it becomes for you to pursue any single objective with uninterrupted concentration. Interestingly, interrupting your efforts to finish a task before it’s complete also seems to interfere with your ability to accurately estimate your productivity, lengthening your estimate of how long you’ve spent and how long it will take you to finish according to a 1992 study by Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman.

This automatic system signals your conscious mind that you have unfinished business, providing evidence of a neurological basis for the teachings of Peter Drucker, Jim Collins and others on the crucial importance of choosing what not to do.

Peter Drucker emphasized the importance of using resources on the 10% of things that make 90% of the difference. He described leadership as doing the right things — versus management, doing things right. Likewise Jim Collins describes his “Stop Doing List” as the cornerstone of how he allocates his most valuable resource: time. 

Whether business strategy or life strategy, many of your most important decisions are about what you will not do.

So save yourself the trouble of the Zeigarnik Effect: Just don’t start what doesn’t need to be finished.

Ah, what a relief. Now we can cross that off the list.

Strategic Illusions

Have you noticed how optical illusions are similar to business strategy issues? Some, like the illusion to your left, are very obvious when you’re not investigating them closely. You know something is happening, but you can’t find an example to investigate. Some illusions become stronger as you closely investigate them. Others are seen more easily from a distance. Some can be even more confusing, looking clearly like one thing when you’re close, only to morph as you gain perspective – going through a period of fuzziness before crystallizing into a new vision that everyone with your perspective sees. Some disappear once you understand how you’re fooled, others, like Shepard’s Tables, will fool your brain no matter how many times you’ve seen them. And for those that are ambiguous or have multiple messages, you’ll see the thing you’ve seen before, whether faces or vases – often without noticing the alternative interpretation. What do they all have in common? You’re seeing something that isn’t really there – or missing something that is.

The same thing can happen when you’re considering you’re strategic plan. This is the time of year when plans are typically updated, and this year nearly everyone is taking another look at their strategy. A crucial part of that process is looking at the world around us, at our competitive challenges and opportunities. A lot has changed in the last two years: consumer behavior, business priorities, and responsibility for our environment to name a few. Most didn’t predict the nature or scale of this change, and even those who did could do little to prepare for the economic challenges. 

It’s important to remember that in times like these, people reach for meaning that isn’t there. Just as optical illusions take advantage of shortcuts in our visual systems, fear and lack of control exploit the weaknesses of shortcuts in our perception and decision-making systems. We’re predisposed to see what we’ve seen before, or to weave a tapestry of connections supporting our view, only to find it unravel with the first tug on the string.

A series of studies by Whitson and Galinsky found that after simply thinking about a time you lost control, you’re far more likely to

  • see non-existent patterns
  • make false connections
  • be more swayed by quantity than quality of data
  • develop superstitions, rituals and conspiracy theories
  • attribute poor results to false causes outside of your control than to your own actions

All systems are in place to predispose you to a strategic mistake.

What can you do as an alternative? This is the time for both analysis and intuition, for using your gut instinct but testing the broad assumptions supporting it, and for employing the tools of blue ocean strategy, innovation and TRIZ.

And to help counteract the distorted perceptions that come from that feeling you may have lost control? Whitson and Galinsky help out there too. 

Ready? Spend some time thinking about and affirming the values that are important to you, and about times when you felt in control.

Now you’re set. Let’s go.

Thanks to Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science for his great summary of the Whitson and Galinsky study, Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117

Monday Morning Performance Booster

Coffee cupThe Neuroskeptic points out a recent study seeming to indicate that if someone replaced your normally caffeinated coffee with decaf this morning, you may not notice the difference, but your performance would decline.

The researchers set out to determine if coffee’s impact on performance was more placebo effect than fact, and chose an interesting design to do it. To make sure they were separating fact from fiction (or caffeine-generated effect from placebo), they added an additional twist: in some cases subjects were told the caffeine in the coffee would enhance their performance, and in others they were told performance would be impaired. Now I’m not saying coffee drives over-achieving, but the caffeine drinkers who were told their performance would be impaired actually did even better. (Actually, given the study design, one couldn’t make this conclusion, but as a coffee drinker, I could barely resist the conclusion once I saw the picture of the results.)

If you like coffee or are considering taking up the caffeinated habit, you can check out the official study publication, or the Neuroskeptic’s English translation, which may also bring back fond memories of Seinfeld and Jerry’s Morning Thunder. “He loves it. He walks around going, ‘God, I feel great!’”

Suppress That Thought (Not!)

Have you ever had a song you just couldn’t get out of your head? Laid awake fretting about your need to fall asleep? Or had some other unwanted thought that simply wouldn’t go away? (…that you then tweeted or posted on FaceBook…? …you know who you are…) Does it feel a bit like, “I have met the enemy, and he is…me?”

Thanks to this post from PsyBlog, even though your mind may feel like the enemy, now you’ll know it’s really just looking out for you. 

Since at least 1987, studies have shown that the more we try to suppress a thought, the more it intrudes. Have you ever been the subject of an enthusiastic professor asking you not to think about the “white bear”? The tendency of that thing-we-don’t-want-to-think-about to come back even more, when we try not to think about it, is known as the ‘post-suppression rebound effect’. And the stronger the thought’s emotional content, the more strongly it rebounds.

And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid…

To over-simplify, and probably upset dozens of scientists who really know what they’re talking about, it goes something like this.

Your brain:

  1. “Supress that thought. Suppress that thought. Suppress that thought.”
  2. “Ah, good. It’s gone. Hurray. Hurray, it’s gone! It’s gone.”
  3. “Wait. Is it really gone? Maybe I’m thinking about it and just don’t realize it. I better check to make sure I’m not really thinking about it.”
  4. “Argh. There it is. Of course I’m thinking about it. How could I know what I’m looking to see, if I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to be forgetting?”
  5. Rinse and repeat 

I know. Not quite as lyrical as Alanis Morrisette. But isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

So what’s a would-be forgetter to do? Isn’t that obvious now?

Stop trying, and just forgedda’bou d’it.

Please see PsyBlog’s post for more complete access to studies, details and image credits (kineda). We simply took their brilliant post and over-simplified it.